SSH vs. VPN: Which is better?

Privacy news
6 mins

Between your device and your online destinations, your data passes through numerous third-party networks over which you have little to no control. However, there are some ways in which you can make that traffic inaccessible to them, such as SSH (Secure Shell) and VPNs (Virtual Private Network).

These technologies look similar at first glance, but they have quite a few differences that make them suitable for different cases. Let’s explore them in more detail.

SSH vs VPN: What’s the difference?

SSH and VPN are both technologies that secure your internet connection, but they operate in fundamentally different ways and serve distinct purposes. SSH provides a secure way to access a remote computer, encrypting the data transferred between the user and the remote machine to ensure privacy and security. It’s commonly used to execute commands on remote servers or tunnel traffic securely.

On the other hand, a VPN encrypts all of a device’s internet traffic and routes it through a server in a location of the user’s choosing. This secures data from eavesdropping and masks the user’s actual IP address, making it appear as if the device is located in the same place as the VPN server. VPNs are used for a broader range of purposes, including securing data on public Wi-Fi networks, bypassing restrictions to content access, and increasing anonymity online.

While both SSH and VPN encrypt data to provide security over unsecured networks, VPNs are designed to secure all of a device’s internet traffic. In contrast, SSH focuses on securing specific connections to remote servers.

What is SSH?

SSH, or Secure Shell, is a cryptographic network protocol used primarily for secure remote login and other secure network services over an unsecured network. It provides a secure channel over an insecure network by using a client-server architecture. It encrypts the session to protect the data and communications from being intercepted or tampered with. 

Network administrators widely use SSH to control web and server applications remotely, ensuring secure file transfers, remote command execution, and more.

What is an SSH tunnel?

An SSH tunnel is a method of transporting arbitrary networking data over an encrypted SSH connection. It can secure unencrypted network protocols like FTP by tunneling the data through a secure channel. Essentially, it’s a bridge between the client and server that encrypts the traffic of applications that directly do not support encryption, providing a safe path over an insecure network. SSH tunnels are often used to bypass firewalls that restrict certain internet services or to access network services securely.

How does SSH work?

SSH works by establishing a secure and encrypted connection between a client and a server. The process begins with the SSH client connecting to the server, and both parties negotiate a secure encrypted session. This involves the exchange of encryption keys to prevent eavesdropping or interception by third parties. Once the secure channel is established, all data transmitted between the client and server is encrypted, providing confidentiality and integrity. 

Authentication of the client to the server is typically done using either a password or a set of digital keys. It’s important to know that only the data between the client and the server data is encrypted. The rest of the traffic remains unsecured.

What is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a service that encrypts your internet connection and routes it through a server in your chosen location. Doing so masks your actual IP address, making your online activities difficult to trace back to you and securing data from interception by third parties. VPNs are widely used to enhance online privacy, secure internet connections, and bypass restrictions on content access.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN establishes a secure and encrypted connection between your device and the internet. Instead of connecting directly to the internet as you normally would, your device connects through a VPN server, which acts as a middleman between your device and the websites or online services you access. 

When you connect to a trustworthy VPN such as ExpressVPN, it encrypts all the data you send and receive, making it unreadable to anyone who might intercept it. This encrypted tunnel prevents hackers, ISPs, and governments from spying on your internet activity, ensuring your online actions remain private and secure.

SSH vs VPN: Which is more secure?

When comparing the security of SSH and VPN, it’s important to understand that both are designed with solid encryption standards to protect data transmission. However, their security strengths lie in different areas and use cases.

SSH is highly secure for its specific purpose: secure remote login and other network services over an unsecured network. Its security is robust for command-line-based communications and transferring files securely. SSH’s encryption ensures the data is protected from eavesdropping and interception, making it ideal for administrators managing servers.

On the other hand, VPNs are designed to secure all internet traffic going to and from a device, not just specific network services. VPNs encrypt the entire data packet, including the header information (which contains routing and IP information), providing higher privacy across all online activities. This makes VPNs particularly effective for users seeking privacy from ISPs, government surveillance, or accessing public Wi-Fi networks.

In terms of overall security, VPNs offer broader protection for general internet use, securing all your online activities from potential interceptors. SSH excels in its niche, providing a secure method for server management and specific tasks requiring encryption. The choice between SSH and VPN depends on your particular needs: if you’re looking to secure all your internet traffic, a VPN is more suitable; for secure server access and file transfers, you can choose SSH.

Ultimately, both SSH and VPN are secure, but VPNs provide a more comprehensive solution for everyday internet users looking for privacy and security across all their online activities.

Pros and cons of SSH and VPNs

SSH and VPN technologies offer secure communication over the internet, but they come with advantages and disadvantages tailored to different use cases.


Secure remote access. SSH provides a secure remote server management and shell access channel, ensuring data is encrypted and safe from eavesdropping.Limited scope. Primarily focused on secure command-line access and file transfers, SSH is not designed to encrypt all internet traffic.
Strong encryption. Uses robust encryption algorithms to protect data transmissions between the client and server.Complex for beginners. Can be complex to set up and manage, especially for users unfamiliar with command-line interfaces.
Port Forwarding. Supports port forwarding, allowing other protocols to be tunneled through an SSH connection for added security.Not for general browsing. SSH does not encrypt web browsing or other applications’ traffic outside the tunnel.



Comprehensive encryption. Encrypts all internet traffic from your device, providing a secure connection for browsing, streaming, and more.Can slow down internet speeds. Encryption and routing through a remote server can sometimes slow down your internet connection.
Bypass content restrictions. Allows users to access content and services that are restricted by masking the user’s real IP address and location.Trust required. Users must trust the VPN provider with their data, as the provider has the potential to log user activity.
Ease of Use. User-friendly interfaces make VPNs accessible to a broad audience, requiring minimal technical knowledge to set up and use.Subscription costs. Most reliable VPN services require a subscription fee.

Understanding the pros and cons of SSH and VPNs can help users choose the right tool for their specific needs, whether for secure remote server access or general encrypted internet usage.


SSH and VPNs are powerful tools for securing your online activities, each with unique strengths and applications. SSH excels in providing secure remote access and file transfers, making it indispensable for administrators and users who need encrypted command-line communication. On the other hand, VPNs offer a comprehensive solution for encrypting all internet traffic, enhancing privacy, and bypassing geographical restrictions for the average user. 

Whether you prioritize the encryption of your entire internet connection or need secure access to a remote server, choosing the right tool can significantly impact your online security and privacy, which is when a top service like ExpressVPN comes in.

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